Paradigm shift: On Colombia’s first leftist President

The victory of Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, in Colombia’s presidential election is one of the most decisive shifts in the South American country’s modern history. At war with leftist guerrillas for decades until a few years ago, Colombia had never voted a leftist to power in the past. Even when a wave of leftist victories was sweeping across South America in the early 2000s, it remained a fort of centrist and conservative politics. But Mr. Petro, armed with his promises of overhauling the country’s economy and governance, broke into this fort and captured power. He won 50.4% votes in Sunday’s election against his rival Rodolfo Hernández’s 47.3%. A host of factors, including internal political changes and economic challenges, helped him script history. In Colombia, where a decades-long civil war between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had had a devastating impact on the public psyche, even mainstream leftist politicians had struggled to win popular support. But FARC’s decision to lay down arms and join the political mainstream as part of the 2016 peace agreement widened the scope for leftist politics in the country. Mr. Petro was quick to mobilise this newly created momentum with an economic programme that broke from the Bogota consensus. He vowed to “democratise land”, renegotiate free trade agreements that were inimical to the interests of Colombian farmers, expand the country’s social security measures, tax the rich more and reduce Colombia’s reliance on fossil fuel.

In a country where annual inflation is 10%, the youth unemployment rate is 20% and the poverty rate is 40%, Mr. Petro’s promises of change helped him strike a chord with voters. Colombia, despite high economic growth, has one of the highest inequality rates in Latin America. While the civil war has come to an end, drug cartels continue to pose serious security challenges. The way ahead is not going to be easy for Mr. Petro. True, he has the presidency, but the Colombian right, which has ruled for decades, has an outsize influence over the state and Congress. Mr. Petro’s leftist bloc has only 25 seats in the 188-member lower House. His promise to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and shift to renewable energy could trigger opposition from the powerful oil industry, besides economic impacts. His move to hold talks with the drug cartels and end the drug wars could attract strong opposition from the U.S. Washington would not sit idly if Mr. Petro takes Colombia, the cornerstone of the U.S.’s Latin American policy, towards the left. So, he should brace for challenges emanating not just from his right-wing opponents but also from the world’s most powerful country. Mr. Petro, however, should stay focused on the issues at hand and seek to unite the country that has been pulverised by civil conflict, drug wars and economic inequality.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2022 1:00:59 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/paradigm-shift-the-hindu-editorial-on-colombias-first-leftist-president/article65557469.ece